First class customer service underpins eco-conscious Loch Ness business
By Gillian McKenzie
IT’S a balmy 23ºC in Fort Augustus and the village at the foot of Loch Ness is filling up with tourists, greeted by the skirl of the pipes from the piper at the Caledonian Canal.
At The Lovat, it’s a hive of activity as the hotel’s staff gear up for another busy day.
It’s been another strong season so far – and there’s more to come, with occupancy looking strong for the rest of the year and healthy forward bookings.
“It is really busy,” said Caroline Gregory, who owns the four-star 28-bedroom hotel with her husband and head chef Sean Kelly.
“This is a bit of a tourist hotspot. Fort Augustus is busy – a lot of tourists coming to Scotland want to check off Loch Ness.
“America is a very strong market for us, Germany too; and we’re seeing more guests coming from China.
“We’re busy right into November, then we drop to a five-day week; we shut a week into January until about Valentine’s Day and run a five-day week until Easter.
“It means we can get any refurbishment work done; and the staff have a break.
“We pride ourselves in good, friendly customer service and you need great staff to deliver that.
“I have some awesome staff; I couldn’t run this place without them.”
Developing the 40-strong team is a key focus for Caroline.
Recruiting people with a passion for hospitality – “you can train in everything else but you can’t teach that” – she has a comprehensive training programme in place, which takes in courses and modules from online training provider eLamb and Tickety Boo Training.
Caroline also works with Apprenticeship in Hospitality Scotland – an initiative set up in 2014 by Gleneagles, Blythswood Square, Apex Hotels, Cameron House and The Torridon (owned by Caroline’s sister Rohaise and her husband Dan) and which now comprises 20 partner hotels across Scotland, of which The Lovat is one.
There are currently two apprentices employed at the hotel who each spend six months in four departments – housekeeping, food and beverage, kitchen and reservations; as well as gaining experience in each department across the two years, apprentices work towards hospitality qualifications and also have the opportunity to attend masterclasses with industry professionals and visit other hospitality businesses across the UK.
“It’s about broadening young people’s horizons to the huge opportunities there are in hospitality – and that these opportunities are right on their doorstep,” said Caroline.
“The apprentices work across different departments and at the end of the two years can decide where they want to specialise.
“It’s a great opportunity for them.
“I want more and more young people to see all the opportunities there are in the hospitality industry.”
And Caroline has first-hand experience of some of the opportunities the industry can offer.
Her parents David and Geraldine Gregory spent more than 30 years in hospitality, including owning The Torridon in Wester Ross between 1992 and 2004, when it was bought by Caroline’s sister and her husband.
Caroline worked at their hotel during school holidays, although recalls: “I definitely didn’t want to work in hospitality then. I think I wanted to prove I could do something different.”
After studying law and business management in Glasgow, she went to London and worked in events – for both corporate and family-run companies before returning to Scotland and buying the Victorian property that is The Lovat with her parents in 2005 (who were subsequently bought out by Caroline’s husband Sean in 2015).
The Gregorys embarked on a root and branch, million-pound refurbishment, a central part of which was the installation of a biomass boiler – the first of its kind in the Highlands. It underpins the eco-conscious ethos which remains at the heart of The Lovat and continues to develop and reach all aspects of the business.
Developments to the property are ongoing too.
Last year saw the hotel’s Station Road restaurant transformed into a private dining and events space, and the bar and brasserie overhauled; while guest rooms were upgraded at the turn of this year. Caroline has also bought and refurbished a seven-bedroom property in the village for staff accommodation.
“I always try and think differently; how can we be different – for the customer experience and for staff,” she said.
“We’re constantly looking to improve. And we are committed to what we do.
“It’s about staying true to yourself; I think that’s really important – having a vision and sticking to it.”